I used to perform a lot on stage. As students, we had to perform in front of our teachers and peers once per week. That was part of the training in stage performance we had. It was not a very pleasant experience. Mainly because of my performance anxiety.
Later on, when I graduated, I started to play auditions for jobs in different orchestras. I did more than 30, some of which resulted in a job. Playing on stage is indeed something you can train and get better at doing, but I often asked myself why was my performance so random in quality. I was equally prepared every time, but the outcome wasn’t always the same. And I don’t say it was a bad experience every time! I had some really enjoyable and fun experiences performing in front of a jury, and that was usually the one that gave me the job. So the question is if performing in front of an audience is going to help you perform better. Yes and no! If you are doing it like a mindless repetition without a mental strategy, then no. But if you approach it with curiosity and learn from the mistakes, then yes.
I found out that the outcome depend on the way I shifted my mental energy. If I felt anxiety it gave me negative energy which feels unpleasant and distressing. My performance didn’t go well. If I felt excitement, it gave me positive energy, and it often went well.
The difference between anxiety and excitement gave me a huge shift in focus. When I combined an enhanced state of energy with negative emotion, I got anxious. But when I combine the same enhanced state of energy with positive emotion, I got excited. Which appears with the same increase in heart rate, physical tense, and sweats but feels much more positive.
So if you can learn to shift between these two, it will matter a great deal when it comes to performing optimally under pressure.
“I’m excited” seems to lead to better performance than thinking “I’m anxious” or trying to calm down. Getting into a state of “excitement” might help to reduce the cognitive or mental aspect of anxiety, and make us focus more on the music and the moment we are in Instead of engaging in all of the worries and doubts that would otherwise tend to occupy our thoughts.
Of course, there’s more to it than telling ourselves to be excited. There’s the mental work that goes into making sure you can get into a positive mental state right before you play the first note. As well as the mental map you create to ensure you can stay focused during the performance, and probably many other aspects.
So, the next time you’re getting ready for a performance, try not to focus on the nerves. And if they do come up, remember to shift your focus to the positive. And most importantly, enjoy the music!